Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association firmly condemn the methods being used by the military government to prevent journalists, including those working for foreign media, from covering a wave of unrest in response to an increase in the price of fuel. The two organisations call on European embassies in Rangoon to publicly defend the right of Burmese journalists to work without obstruction.
“The military’s response to the wave of protests against price increases since 19 August has again been heavy-handed repression, intimidation and censorship of Burmese journalists,” the two organisations said. “Despite the violence by the military and their bully-boys, reports and pictures of the demonstrations are being seen abroad. This testifies to the courage of the Burmese journalists and demonstrators.”
The censorship bureau and the police stepped up controls after the government decided to raise the price of fuel on 15 August.
The Burmese correspondents of foreign news media say they been subjected to a great deal of intimidation from plain-clothes police and members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (the regime’s militia) while covering the recent demonstrations in Rangoon. Armed with spades and iron bars and circulating in army trucks, police and militiamen have been insulting and threatening journalists.
An unidentified journalist was roughed up by men in plain clothes as he took pictures of people lining up to take public transport in the capital on 22 August. USDA members and police prevented journalists from approaching a group of street demonstrators in Rangoon the next day. USDA thugs jostled and insulted journalists. A Reuters reporter was forbidden to take pictures of arrests and the police finally seized his cameras.
As a result of this intimidation, Agence France-Presse has described coverage of the current events as “delicate.” A journalist working for a foreign news organisation based in Bangkok told Reporters Without Borders that its Burmese stringer had been forced to stay away from the demonstrations because of the constant intimidation.
“Men in plain clothes impose an atmosphere of fear around the demonstrations which prevents us from working,” said one Burmese journalist employed by a foreign news organisation. “It is hard to risk being arrested for a photo.”
The Rangoon military command has banned journalists from taking photos of demonstrations and has ordered the seizure and destruction of cameras from those who do not comply. In order to hamper the dissemination of reports, the authorities are said to have slowed Internet traffic, even for private companies. According to some accounts, it has become increasingly difficult to access gmail.com and gtalk. Mobile phone networks have also been disrupted since demonstrators began gathering every day in Rangoon last week.
Lots of the images and reports of the demonstrations seen abroad have come from demonstrators or amateur journalists. The magazine Irrawaddy has paid homage to them and is talking of the emergence of “citizen-journalists” in Burma.
After banning the Burmese media from publishing any reports about the demonstrations, the government announced that their leaders, known as the Generation 88 activists, will be prosecuted for trying to start an uprising. They face up to 20 years in prison. After a 10-day news blackout, the media have also been told they can now refer to the fuel price increase, albeit only in positive terms.